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Domestic Violence: How does it work and why don't survivors leave?

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In the first post of this series, we examined what domestic violence is and looked at relevant statistics related to its consequences This post will look at how domestic violence works and why survivors don't leave.

Domestic violence boils down to the want for a batterer to have power and control over another human being. For most batterers, there is no concern about who they will abuse, there is only the want to do so. An abuser has many ways of exercising power and control over the person he or she chooses to abuse. The Power and Control Wheel below outlines the 8 categories into which abuse falls and the specific strategies used by a batterer to gain and maintain such power and control.



As shown in the diagram above, an abuser has many ways in which to inflict abuse, some of which are particularly hurtful. Because the batterer tends to isolate the person being abused, it becomes easier for the abuser to continue the abuse as the person being abused is removed from any resources he or she might have had to be able to leave, such as a job, friends, family, or vehicles.

But why don't survivors leave?

The reasons that a person might stay in an abusive situation are many.

First, the abuse doesn't start at its worst. The batterer starts slowly with little things – not showing compassion, criticism, blows to the survivor's self-esteem. This escalates slowly over months and years into controlling and manipulating the survivor, isolating him or her, and intimidation. Eventually the batterer begins destroying property and threatening or harming pets. Next comes physical abuse such as grabbing or pushing, throwing things, slapping, kicking, burning, biting, punching, threatening with a weapon, attempted strangulation, assault, and severe injury. Sexual assault might come next. And finally the ultimate act – murder.

This tactics operate within a cycle of abuse:

  1. Tension building – the survivor attempts to keep peace in the household by walking on eggshells to keep the batterer happy but knows that abuse could happen at any time.

  2. Abuse/Incident – the batterer initiates an incident of abuse. This could be any one or more of the tactics above.

  3. Reconciliation – the batterer returns to the survivor after the abuse and “makes amends” by telling the survivor the abuse only occurs because the batterer makes him or her do it or because the batterer loves him or her so much. The batterer does what it takes to make the survivor stay.

  4. Calm/Honeymoon – everything seems okay for a while. No abuse occurs during the part of the cycle, and the survivor might believe that there will be no more abuse.

This cycle occurs over and over in the relationship. Early on, the cycle can take place over weeks and years and follows the pattern in its entirety. However, as the abuse progresses, the cycle shortens to weeks, days, or hours and can devolve into cycling solely between Tension building and Abuse/Incident without the other parts of the cycle.

Other reasons that a survivor might stay in an abusive relationship include:

  • Having love for the batterer or investment in the relationship – Love doesn't turn off like a switch

  • Financial dependence on the batterer or lack of resources to leave

  • Children – If the batterer was to get visitation with the child after the relationship dissolves, the survivor would not be there to protect them from future abuse

  • Cultural expectations/shame

  • Safety – The most dangerous time for a survivor is when he or she is attempting to leave the abusive relationship due to the batterer's attitude of, “If I can't have you, no one can.”

  • Consequences are too high – The survivor is likely to lose everything he or she has, the survivor might have been forced to participate in criminal activity or degrading sexual acts that the batterer will expose, or the survivor's immigration status might prevent them from seeking help

  • Physically cannot make preparations to leave – The survivor might have been kept from sleeping, food, or medication/medical care by the batterer or the batterer might have forced the survivor to use drugs or alcohol to prevent the survivor from leaving.

Leaving isn't easy for a survivor of domestic violence. In the next post in the series we will look at what survivors need from those around them as well as resources available to survivors.

Barbara ColemanComment